Seeing with your mind’s eye: not for everyone

Peter MolemanArticles, Senses, The world within your head2 Comments

Translated by Rumia Bose

I seem to have misplaced my iPhone. It is not in my pocket or on the charger. I mentally retrace my steps through the house: the bedroom, living room and the kitchen. But I cannot, with my mind’s eye, see myself laying it down in any of these places. I then recall that I have a USB port in my new car, where I sometimes plug my phone in to charge. I hurry to my car, and indeed, there it lies. This search takes place largely inside my head, looking with my mind’s eye. It goes much the same way with my memories. They are often played out like a sort of film in my head, as described in Remembering an event changes your memory. How does it work if you see with your mind’s eye? Are there visual signals? They do not at any rate enter through the eyes.

Looking with your eyes

When you look, signals are sent through your eyes to the primary visual cortex, right at the back of your brain (Fig. 1). From here, they are transmitted progressively further forwards to other parts of your brain, where they are processed and integrated with other data (Fig 2). For instance, in the temporal lobe they are combined with information from your memory in order to recognise objects and faces1. In the parietal cortex they are combined with other sensory input to determine where the item you see is located in space and in relation to other objects. Also, it is here that your brain determines if what you are seeing is important. If it isn’t, then you automatically direct your attention to something else, and further processing of the original object of focus stops. If what you see is important, then you must decide what to do about it. For this, all the information is combined in the frontal cortex. Signals can be sent out from here to the premotor and motor cortex in order to take action.

Fig. 1 Signals are transmitted through the eyes to the primary visual cortex at the rear of the brain
Fig. 2 Signals travel from the primary visual cortex (at the rear of the brain) to be combined and integrated in successive areas of the brain situated further forwards. See text for explanation

Seeing with your mind

When you see with your mind’s eye, the entire process goes in reverse order. It starts with what I have to do if I misplace my iPhone; my frontal cortex “says” to search. I walk through the house, not physically but in thoughts. My temporal lobe comes into play for the identification of my phone. Should I look for it in my study? With the help of my parietal cortex I know that I won’t find it there, because I haven’t been there in the past two days. This information came from my autobiographical memory.
Therefore, seeing with your mind’s eye begins in the frontal cortex and from there on you use areas of your brain which lie progressively further behind. The rearmost area – the primary visual cortex – was not used when I looked for my iPhone. That is only required when you need to see something highly detailed with your mind’s eye, such as all the specifics -the edges, the controls- of the phone. Seeing with your mind’s eye is usually fairly vague and hazy. Try to retrieve something in your memory which you can visualise, such as a room in your previous house which you were very familiar with. And now concentrate on one object and try to get all the details in sharp focus. This attempt usually only meets with moderate success.

People without a mind’s eye2

But there are people who are completely unable to do this! They cannot see with their mind’s eye. When you ask them what they see when they remember things, they answer: ” nothing”. They do know that room in their previous house and have recollections of it, but without images3. I cannot imagine how that can be, because I need those images. If my wife asks, “do you remember that restaurant beside the museum in Assen?” I search for images in my memory. And if I cannot find these, then no memories resurface. But if she then says, ” ….with the staircase through the middle…” then the images come back and I see where we sat and perhaps even what we ate.

A test: how good is my mind’s eye?

You can test how well you can see with your mind’s eye; see the links to the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) under references4. The scoring lies between 1- a very powerful mind’s eye – and 5 – an obviously missing mind’s eye. Average scores lie between 2 and 2.5. My score is 1.7, which means that my mind’s eye is quite strongly developed.

Oliver Sacks lacked a mind’s eye

In 2015 an article in the popular press set off a wave of realisation for hundreds of people that they did not have the faculty of a mind’s eye. Before this, most of them thought that this was normal5. The authors of this article interviewed two thousand of these people and discovered interesting features of people without a mind’s eye. It was already known that most of them see images in their dreams. So in their dreams they could see that staircase and the food in that restaurant in Assen. Watkins, a physicist who also lacks a mind’s eye, describes his own experiences and also quotes Oliver Sacks. He too did not have a mind’s eye, but Sacks once used amphetamines to help him conjure up images. Amphetamine can provide the experience of a mind’s eye if you lack one of your own:
“I … could hold very accurate and stable visual images in my mind and trace them on paper, as with a camera lucida. … My enjoyment of these newfound powers … was mitigated, however, by finding that my abstract thinking was extremely compromised.”

Abstract thinking and the mind’s eye

I can’t do without my mind’s eye for my neuroscientific endeavours. As I describe brain areas as above, I see them in my mind. Mathematics plays an important role within the neurosciences. I usually skip these articles, because I understand nothing of this. Abstract thought and a powerful mind’s eye apparently do not make good bedfellows, as Oliver Sacks also experienced.
Watkins describes yet another characteristic: a severe limitation of autobiographical memory, known as SDAM (Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory). While he does have early memories, they are much more vague and less detailed than people with a mind’s eye. And he finds it difficult to imagine his future.

People with a super mind’s eye

The reverse is also possible: people who experience almost everything in vivid images and moving pictures. They often are not very good at abstract thinking. And as you might have guessed, these people are often creative and artistically inclined. There must be differences in brain dynamics between people without and with a highly developed mind’s eye. But this has not yet been found.

Conclusion

For me, the moral of this story is that one should be careful not to assume that everyone sees their past or future in the same way as I do. What’s more, this difference in degree may apply to almost every aspect of thinking.

References

Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ)
or on the website of the Aphantasia Network: Vividness of Visual Imagery Quiz

Dijkstra N, Ambrogioni L, Vidaurre D, van Gerven M (2020): Neural dynamics of perceptual inference and its reversal during imagery. eLife 9:e53588.

Zeman A, Milton F, Della Sala S, Dewar M, Frayling T, Gaddum J, et al. (2020): Phantasia-The psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes. Cortex DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2020.04.003.

Dawes AJ, Keogh R, Andrillon T, Pearson J (2020): A cognitive profile of multi-sensory imagery, memory and dreaming in aphantasia. Scientific Reports 10:10022.

Dijkstra N, Bosch SE, Gerven MAJ van (2019): Shared Neural Mechanisms of Visual Perception and Imagery. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2019.02.004.

Pearson J (2019): The human imagination: the cognitive neuroscience of visual mental imagery. Nat Rev Neurosci :1–11. DOI: 10.1038/s41583-019-0202-9

Fan CL, Abdi H, Levine B (2019): On the relationship between autobiographical episodic memory and spatial navigation. PsyArXiv. DOI: 10.31234/osf.io/pnbfz.

Bainbridge WA, Pounder Z, Eardley AF, Baker CI (2019): Quantifying Aphantasia through drawing: Those without visual imagery show deficits in object but not spatial memory. bioRxiv :865576.

Watkins NW (2018): (A)phantasia and severely deficient autobiographical memory: Scientific and personal perspectives. Cortex 105:41–52.

Keogh R, Pearson J (2018): The blind mind: No sensory visual imagery in aphantasia. Cortex 105:53–60.

Dijkstra N, Zeidman P, Ondobaka S, van Gerven MAJ, Friston K (2017): Distinct Top-down and Bottom-up Brain Connectivity During Visual Perception and Imagery. Sci Rep 7. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-05888-8.

Luckmann HC, Jacobs HI, Sack AT (2014): The cross-functional role of frontoparietal regions in cognition: internal attention as the overarching mechanism. Prog Neurobiol 116:66–86.

Footnotes
  1. https://breininactie.com/recognising-faces/
  2. The scientific term for this, aphantasia, can be a bit misleading. Aphantasia has nothing to do with a lack of fantasy. It is derived from the Greek word phantasia that was used by Aristotle for the mind’s eye.
  3. See the website of the Aphantasia Network
  4. The first link is to the website of David Marks, the creator of the questionnaire, the second link is to the interesting website of the Aphantasia Network
  5. It is estimated that 1-2% of people fall in this category

2 Comments on “Seeing with your mind’s eye: not for everyone”

  1. Hi Peter, thank you for sharing a window into your own mind, and, more generally, the mind of a visualizer. It is wonderfully perplexing trying to grasp what our life, perception, and everyday processes would be like if we experienced our thoughts in a fundamentally different way than we do and ever have. Let me attempt to return the favor:
    I haven’t ever voluntarily accessed, or at least I can’t recall ever accessing my “mind’s eye”. Nor my mind’s ear, nose, tongue, etc. I dream visually and have experienced a handful of involuntary flashes of mental imagery – the majority of which have been hypnopompic hallucinations occurring seconds before I slip into slumber. But never have I relived a memory or have had my search processes aided by the image of various spaces of my house, car, or office.
    This inaccessibility to my mind’s eye might help explain the countless times I’ve misplaced items. Just two days ago, I spent the day convinced I had left one of my travel backpacks at our last destination… until my dad returned and asked “Did you pack it in your suitcase?”. But of course, this is something I’ve frequently done when flying yet didn’t think to check because our trip made that morning was by car.
    I also consider myself to have rather poor episodic memory, such as remembering the sensory details or emotional experiences of a past event. Conversely, I hold a treasure trove of various facts and statistics within my mind that effortlessly flow to the surface when presented with relevant stimuli, such as a conversation relating to the information. And while I can’t “hear” my inner monologue I would say my conscious thoughts are most dominantly linguistic in nature. In fact, I surmise my language processing and abilities are stronger than they might be if I also represented thoughts in a sensory manner. For language is the closest thing to a concrete thought I experience and therefore I wield it most intentionally.
    Now despite not “seeing” visual imagery, I am still visually creative, at least in generating less detailed ideas. I have a number of great examples in the realm of branding, as I spent ten years in marketing and have started, or helped start a number of ventures. In a number of instances, a creative logo idea has come to mind immediately after voicing a potential business title. Now, these ideas do not consist of any minute details, or even color, but primarily layout.
    Which brings up spatial abilities: like many aphantasics I’d say my spatial reasoning is rather intact. For me, when I think of my house or any house that I’ve navigated, I first simply think of the notion of that house. I may think about rather general details such as who lives there but most prominently will think about which part of town it is located in, the layout of the house, and other things/places in the area. And unless I more specifically am asked, or ask myself, a question about that house – such as “what furniture exists and where is it positioned?” – I will not think much further past the fundamentals. If you ask me to describe the portraits on the wall or what types of plants are present, I will likely struggle to recall unless they were ever a primary focus of my attention. For instance, if the item had been the topic of conversation or I had ever taken a moment to appreciate or make a mental note of it.
    In general, I surmise my experience of thoughts seems a lot less passive than people who possess regularly occurring mental imagery. I don’t seem to have thoughts just come to mind or linger to the degree that others describe. Because my thoughts are less salient, I feel that I have to be much more intentional in order to hold them. Otherwise, my attention will remain more prominently on things in my perceptual field, rather than of my imagination. I and many other aphantasics report we have little difficulty remaining “present”. Getting lost in thoughts is not as common of an experience and I can’t say I have ever really been so lost in thought that I was completely unaware of my external environment.
    When I am consumed in thought, it almost undoubtedly is due to a heightened emotional state. And one finding that has been rather well-substantiated since the coining of the terms “aphantasia” and hyperphantasia” is the emotional amplification of mental imagery (see https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335006889_The_critical_role_of_mental_imagery_in_human_emotion_insights_from_Aphantasia. Studies). When I think about a sad or happy memory, this process is largely objective – I may experience a tinge of the same feelings then experienced. But let’s say the memory is a somewhat recent break-up and I then see or spend time with my ex, I likely will have a much more visceral response because the visual reminder of her is much more emotive. And this also goes for imagined future-scenarios. If I think about a potential threat, failure, or embarrassment, I don’t have much of an emotive response… until I’m facing the threat directly or see an analogous shortcoming play out. This has definitely heightened my willingness to take risks and ability to speak about sensitive topics – most notably differences in beliefs and opinions. For instance, it feels rather easy to stay objective, unemotional, and curious about contradictory viewpoints when discussing politics or religion, unless the other person is angrily attacking me (but again, this limbic response is driven by stimuli in my perceptual environment).
    The primary challenge of having less emotive thoughts is cultivating and sustaining motivation for distant outcomes. I cant just see and experience what “success” will be or feel like, it is a very abstract notion. So if there is something I believe I really desire, I will routinely spend a lot of time planning it out and reinforcing it through writing, studying others’ success, and asking myself why an outcome is important to me. I also regularly ask myself how I will feel and strategize ways to experience those feelings as frequently as possible. This year I’ve spent hundreds of hours fleshing out my dreams, motivations, and necessary habits so I could endure ~100hr-long workweeks long enough to develop expertise in a completely new field while maintaining my fulltime profession to continue earning a living. At least until I began reaping the rewards of the new endeavor. I am happy to report that, two weeks ago, I put in my letter of resignation for the previous profession 🙂
    There is much more I could say on my cognitive experience but I’ve said enough as it is. If you have any specific questions, I’d be happy to answer them!

    1. Thanks, Zach, for sharing! It is very enlightning to read how different your mind works and indeed how different your life is. There appears to be a counterpart to what you don’t have. I have difficulties remembering names of people, or better: retrieve them from memory. This worsens with age, but was already a problem when I was young. See “I can’t recall your name, am I getting dementia?”(https://breininactie.com/i-cant-recall-your-name-am-i-getting-dementia/). This apparently is and may never be a problem for you. So you lack a solid episodic memory, and I lack a solid semantic memory.

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